Nursing home operators are big donors to Sebastian County judicial candidates

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 3,456 views 

Two Sebastian County Circuit Judge candidates have received a significant amount of campaign contributions from sources that have been connected to federal investigations and convictions of judges and legislators.

Greg Magness, a candidate in the Sebastian County Circuit Court, Division VI, race, has received at least $11,200 from Michael Morton, president of Fort Smith-based Central Arkansas Nursing Centers; Jerry Sams and Wincy Hursh, who work for Morton; and David Norsworthy, a business associate with Morton. That amount is 17% of Magness’ contributions as of Feb. 4.

Judge Sam Terry, a candidate in the Sebastian County Circuit Court, Division VII, race, also received a combined $11,200 from the same four persons. The amount is 28.3% of contributions to the Terry campaign as of Feb. 17.

Former Judge Mike Maggio of Conway is now in federal prison after pleading guilty to accepting a bribe in return for reducing a jury verdict against a Morton nursing home from $5.2 million to $1 million in a negligence case. The campaign contributions from Morton and his associates were organized by then-Sen. Gilbert Baker, R-Conway. Baker would be indicted on several counts of conspiracy, bribery and wire fraud related to the matter.

Norsworthy is under investigation for giving $80,000 to then Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith. Files was sentenced in June 2018 to 18 months for fraud related to the use of the state’s General Improvement Funds.

Magness provided the following statement when asked about the contributions from Morton, Norsworthy and others.

“As you know, judicial candidates are not allowed to solicit campaign contributions. My campaign committee was and is responsible for soliciting and accepting contributions. While I do not agree with your assertion that any persons who have contributed to my campaign have ‘known controversies,’ I would say to voters that my committee has received contributions from people of all backgrounds, many of whom are in business. I am grateful that many of my clients, and my law partners, are supporting my campaign because those are the people who have personally seen my legal ability and work ethic over the years. All contributions have been legal and duly reported as required.

“As a Constitutional conservative, I am fiercely committed to the rule of law. My judgment would never be influenced by any outside considerations, including campaign contributions or political action groups. Equal justice under the law can be achieved only through objective and reflective jurists. Any suggestion that I would favor anyone in a court case based on a contribution is personally offensive to me, and I can assure you that all parties to any litigation in my court will be treated equally and fairly.

“Concerning the question of recusal, as I have stated, I will abide by the Arkansas Code of Judicial Conduct which has a specific provision governing recusal. Rule 2.11 addresses circumstances in which a judge should recuse from a case. If elected, I will recuse from any cases in which a party is represented by a lawyer from my law firm and I will recuse from any cases in which former clients are parties for a reasonable time after I take office, and will follow the requirements of the rule in making those determinations.”

Speaking on behalf of Terry, Fort Smith attorney Dalton Person also noted that Terry would have to recuse in any matter involving Morton’s businesses.

“All contributions to the Committee to Elect Sam Terry Circuit Judge that have been solicited and received are legal. We are grateful for the financial support from many individuals, including the support of numerous community leaders, and have no reason to return any contributions from individuals kind enough to donate to Judge Terry’s campaign. Their support is a show of confidence in Judge Terry’s judicial experience and ability to serve as a circuit judge,” said Person, who is spokesperson for the Committee to Elect Sam Terry Circuit Judge. “Judges are governed by state law and the rules in place by the Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission and the Arkansas Ethics Commission. All judges, including Judge Terry, would have to recuse when those rules require it. Judge Terry is operating under those rules as a presently sitting judge.”

In addition to Magness, Phil Milligan and Sebastian County Deputy Public Defender Rita Howard Watkins are also candidates in the Sebastian County Circuit Court, Division VI, race. Following are the campaign contributions, expenses, remaining fund balances for each campaign, and any special notes on campaign funds. All figures are from the Secretary of State’s office.

Greg Magness (as of Feb. 4)
Total contributions: $65,741
Total expenses: $13,084
Fund balance: $56,456
Notes: Magness has loaned $15,000 to his campaign.

Phil Milligan (as of Feb. 13)
Total contributions: $5,866
Total expenses: $13,522
Fund balance: $2,343
Notes: Milligan has loaned $10,000 to his campaign.

Rita Howard Watkins (as of Feb. 16)
Total contributions: $6,661
Total expenses: $3,120
Fund balance: $5,285
Notes: Watkins has loaned $1,456 to her campaign.

Terry faces Dianna Ladd in the Sebastian County Circuit Court, Division VII race.

Dianna Ladd (as of Feb. 17)
Total contributions: $13,791
Total expenses: $12,997
Fund balance: $5,931
Notes: Ladd has loaned $5,137 to her campaign.

Sam Terry (as of Feb. 17)
Total contributions: $39.557
Total expenses: $13,823
Fund balance: $25,934